Should We Ban Football?

These warriors of the gridiron are our valiant heroes, and they will not be deterred by soap operas about dementia and shortened life spans.
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Hold on. This may come as a shock! Recent headlines suggest -- that playing professional football is dangerous. But how could it be otherwise? The game involves vicious, premeditated collisions between large and athletically talented men who have played the sport since they were in the peewee league. These warriors of the gridiron are our valiant heroes, and they will not be deterred by soap operas about dementia and shortened life spans. Until they can no longer move, they will "leave it all on the field."

Those who would make football safer for the participants will find few allies among those who still play the game. For them, a career in the National Football League is not a nightmare. It is their dream come true. Some play for the riches they are paid, others for the exultation of the experience. For all, it is the fulfillment of all their life's hopes, and no one is going to take that away from them now. Their union will protect their opportunity, not their health.

Yet there are others, like the fans, who are affected by the game who ultimately may have more to say about the future of the sport. As we wait patiently for Sunday, Monday, and - later in the season - the special Thursday night edition, we try to ignore the toll of the game on the men who are carried off the field on stretchers to the cheers of the crowd. Won't they be back at practice on Tuesday?

Congress recently held hearings about the dangers inherent in football. Although some were outraged by NFL Commissioner Goodell's oblivious and deflecting answers, they found no smoking gun that could catalyze Congressional action. Voting against professional football would be political suicide.

The evidence is mounting, however, about the debilitating effects of a football career. Soon the partisans of the game will no longer be able to deny the data. Men who play the game at the highest level lose, on average, three years of their life expectancy for every year they play in the NFL. The incidence of dementia in 50-year-old former footballers is five times that of non-football-playing men. Autopsies on those who died young show the effects of years of physical abuse. Studies now underway will confirm the toll.

Some deny the obvious, that the game of football played fully in accordance with its rules is extremely dangerous to the health and lives of those who play the game for our enjoyment. Tobacco company executives have taught us not to trust those who baldly claim no linkage between a high risk activity and physical and mental damage. The issue now is what we should do about it.

It is too easy to say that we should do nothing. Although they are careful about admitting it, NFL owners and officials know the golden goose is at risk, and they will fight a two-front war to battle bad publicity while searching for the equivalent of a safe cigarette. Those who tell us that football is as central to the American experience as apple pie and motherhood ignore the dramatic changes in our culture that seem to occur now with rapidity. Ban cigarette smoking in public places? Clean up toxic spills and polluted air? Require people to wear their seat belts? These "never-will-happen" things have happened and more are on the way.

The best we can do now is think about what kind of evidence would or should compel us to ban football the way we banned boxing in the Nineteenth Century because of its brutality. Would it be enough if we saw someone die on the field? Football kills silently long after the final gun sounds, and we seem not to be affected by mere quadriplegia. Maybe evidence about the impact of the game on our children who play the high school game might be compelling, but that too is unlikely. After all, success in high school football could result in a college football scholarship.

The ultimate turning point might come when we realize what the violence and brutality of football does to us, the fans and spectators of what has become our national passion each fall. Have we become the citizens of Rome attending the bouts at the Coliseum, watching the slaughter of the innocents? We turn away from dog fighting but we always seem "ready for some football - a Monday night party." What does that say about us? Are we desensitized to the carnage? Do we care?

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